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Bahrain deal a win-win for Trump and Israel in a changing region

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen in June 2020, and Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, seen in December 2019, have agreed on historic reconciliation - RONEN ZVULUN, Fayez Nureldine / ©AFP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen in June 2020, and Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, seen in December 2019, have agreed on historic reconciliation - RONEN ZVULUN, Fayez Nureldine / ©AFP

(AFP)

Bahrain announced Friday it would become the latest Arab state to recognize Israel, a triumph both for the Jewish state and US President Donald Trump who is looking for pre-election wins.

The deal is another step in a cherished dream by Israeli and US conservatives to win Arab recognition of Israel without establishing a state for the Palestinians, who quickly denounced Bahrain.

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The announcement, weeks after the United Arab Emirates also said it would recognize Israel, comes against the backdrop of soaring tensions with Iran, an arch-enemy for Gulf Arabs, Israel and the Trump administration.

Here are how the developments affect the key players:

– Why is Bahrain recognizing Israel? –

Bahrain, a Sunni-ruled kingdom with a large Shiite population, has especially tense ties with Iran and relies on the United States, which stations its Fifth Fleet on the tiny Gulf island.

Trump reversed course from his predecessor Barack Obama by selling weapons to Bahrain despite human rights concerns and has encouraged the kingdom to strengthen unofficial ties with Israel, with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner last year launching the administration’s Middle East plan in Manama.

Will Wechsler, director of the Middle East program at the Atlantic Council think tank, said that Gulf Arabs were also reacting to a perceived US withdrawal from its leadership role, which they found “hugely concerning.”

With historic Arab power centers Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad focused inward, the Gulf states are increasingly worried by the influence of non-Arab players — Shiite clerical state Iran, Muslim Brotherhood-linked Turkey and Vladimir Putin’s assertive Russia.

“What you’re seeing now is the emergence of a new coalition to be able to fend off those parties,” Wechsler said.

Israel and Gulf Arabs “are not natural allies. There are cultural differences, but they are all being overcome right now because they share this perception in geopolitics and of opportunities,” especially economic, he said.

– Big victory for Israel –

The recognition is a coup for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will come to the White House on Tuesday to sign with both the UAE and Bahrain.

The Arab states are the first to recognize Israel in more than two decades, bringing the Jewish state closer to its goal of acceptance on the world stage and further connecting it within the region, including through direct flights to the Gulf.

Netanyahu’s main concession was to give up a controversial plan blessed by Trump to annex much of the occupied West Bank — but it is no closer to allowing a Palestinian state, a goal the UAE and Bahrain say they still support.

Wechsler said that annexation would have been a “massive strategic disaster” for Israel and the normalization deals effectively forced it to “avoid shooting itself in the foot” — especially with the possibility that Joe Biden defeats Trump in November.

The Palestinian Authority called the agreement by Bahrain another “stab in the back” amid fears its cause for an independent state is losing steam among Arab governments.

– New achievement for Trump –

Trump has spared no self-praise over his achievement, with the White House trumpeting that the president had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize — which requires only a submission from a lawmaker.

With the deal, Trump can make an even stronger case that he has been an ally of historic proportions to Israel after bucking the international consensus with steps such as recognizing Jerusalem as its capital.

Israel enjoys wide support within Trump’s crucial electoral base of evangelical Christians.

Bahrain’s announcement came just as Afghanistan’s government opens talks with the Taliban, moving Trump closer on another key international goal. 

Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, welcomed the Bahrain agreement but questioned Trump’s role.

And he said the agreement did nothing to reduce tensions with Iran or move toward a Palestinian state.

“The agreement is mostly the result of shifting interests and alliances that have been in motion for many years,” he said.

“It is unlikely that this deal, combined with the one between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, will fundamentally shift the overall instability in the Middle East.”

Shaun TANDON

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